On my 48th birthday I converted to Judaism. Little by little, I broke the news to each of the seven ministers at my Baptist church. My senior pastor cried. When I announced my decision to my Sunday school class, most were so shocked that they left without speaking to me. My neighbor, who had never been remotely religious, told me I was going to hell. A caller on a large radio show called me a heretic and the host, in the middle of what was supposed to be a live, hour-long interview, hung up on me. One close family member told me she didn’t want to hear anything about my “new” life. Because half of my freelance writing career involved writing for Christian periodicals, I lost my career. One editor, for whom I frequently wrote, insinuated I had deceived the Christian community. Another close friend actually told me I'd invalidated Christianity itself, the entire religion, because I'd been raised a Christian and rejected it. What?
Then, three months after my conversion, my husband of nearly 30 years, whom I loved deeply (I'll call him M), left me.
For ten years I had listened to Jews-by-choice talk about their conversion experiences, saying that it was like “coming home” for them. For me, I was literally wrenched from every home I had ever known.
Most days I crawled out of bed, sat staring at my computer, then spent a good deal of the day in a fetal position on the floor. M came over every day, strung me along emotionally and later, when it was too late for a reconciliation, we sat sobbing on the telephone as he told me had made the biggest mistake of his life the day he left.
I was unable to support myself on my income alone. I prepared myself to submit a resume and go out on interviews, but then discovered that thousands of people from all over the country submitted resumes to a single employer via the internet. I hadn't applied for a job in 26 years. I didn't have the slightest idea how to even look for employment.
A close friend who is a medical doctor offered me anti-depressants. I refused because I wanted to deal with my situations with a clear mind (what was I thinking?!).
I looked for and found, however, a few bright spots. When I told an elderly friend about my conversion, I let her know that I understood her belief in Jesus would make my news difficult to hear. “I'll tell you what I believe,” she said with her typical spunk. “I believe in you.” A lifelong Baptist, she never once flinched in her support for and love of me. Another elderly Baptist friend said to me, “I have lots of Jewish friends! Now I'll have another one!”
One of the ministers, along with a few other friends, from my former church came to my conversion ceremony, sharing my joy as they joined the crowd who gathered with me that day. My ex-husband offered to help me start a business and he became my first client. Other family and friends were always there when I needed to talk.I received speaking engagements from all over the country.
I still struggled to get through the days, in large part because I hoped M and I would reconcile. It didn't seem likely, though, and everyone began to push me to move on. In my agony and confusion, I mistakenly took that to mean I should move into a new relationship. I had been seeing a man who cared deeply about me, and he managed to convince me that I would love him in time. “Marry me,” he said nearly every day. “I'll help you heal.” It didn't work out that way.
Countless times I’ve been asked the question, “If you could go back and do it all over again, would you make the same decision?” Would you still choose Judaism if you'd known all the loss and pain you'd have to endure?
While I understand my friends' curiosity, the question belongs in a world of fantasy, of science fiction. How can I possibly answer that question? That converting to a new religion was worth losing the only man I'd ever loved, a marriage of 30 years, friends, a church that had saved me when I was in an abusive relationship with fundamentalist Christianity? How absurd.
Yet how can I not answer it? Yes, I would make the same decision – not because a religion is more important than those I loved, but because giving up your identity creates an abnormal relationship. Nor can I live as a hypocrite; belief is something that happens to us, not something that we choose. Had I asked M or anyone else in my life to change their beliefs, they would have deemed the request ludicrous. Nor could we ask of one another to give up our growth or identity. There can be no real relationship when that happens.
How, then, did this life-altering change occur? How did I, a seemingly devoted Baptist for 48 years, come to embrace Judaism so completely that it became inseparable to my very identity and resulted in so much pain and devastation to myself and to other people?
My first encounter with Judaism was during an interfaith service which my church held with the local Reform synagogue. In my first book, A Baptist Among the Jews, I wrote that from my very first “date”, Judaism felt like the passionate love I'd found as an adult. As I became more engrossed in services and rituals and holidays, my love deepened just as love does in a happy marriage.
That my heart felt ripped into two parts isn't unusual. When I first married, I didn't want to be away from M, but during those first few years, hundreds of miles away from my family, I missed them intensely. But M was my love and my priority. With my family I shared the connection of birth and biology. With M, I shared the very essence of my soul.
It wasn't entirely different when I discovered Judaism. I fell immediately in love, and my love deepened over the years. Initially, the church continued to feel like family and I missed them deeply. Perhaps, though, the analogy ends here, because while I will always love and cherish those who nurtured the spirituality of my childhood and part of my adult life, every part of me is bound up within Judaism: my soul, my life, my identity, my spirituality, and my God.
For a long time, during interviews on radio shows, and during question and answer time at speaking engagements, I swore I had truly believed as a Christian, but that gradually, I had lost that belief. Soon, however, I realized that even as a young child, I had been deeply attracted to the God described by the Hebrew prophets – a God who never gave up on the people God loved. David mesmerized me. The stories in the Jewish Bible captivated me. Nothing else appealed to me.
As I grew older, doubts and questions constantly haunted me, but I was terrified to admit it. In most of the churches I attended as an adult, leaders discouraged us from reading anything that was deemed “heretical”. Friends had to be cultivated inside our small circles, and if we had any kind of “relationship” outside of these, it should be for the purpose of evangelizing.
I had virtually no contact with the outside world, and it had been drilled into my head for four decades that I would go to hell if I questioned the basic tenets of Christianity. When I finally mustered the courage to even question openly, I ended up in a psychologist's office for two years. These experiences describe neither my childhood, nor the church I was part of for the decade before I became a Jew, but it does describe much of what happened to me in between.
Memory isn't photographic and I can only reconstruct my life from my current vantage point, but I know I never explored my own heart. I feared hell and rejection and condemnation and loss. And when I somehow found the courage to rebel (hence, one of my chosen Hebrew names, Meri, meaning “rebel”), I discovered, finally, what I believed, what my soul yearned for... and who I am.
At some level I believe I had been crying out to become a Jew all of my life, and certainly in the years before I converted, I wanted nothing more than to be part of the religion that I deeply identified with – the religion where I personally found God in a way I'd never encountered God before. In other ways, it seems as if I've been nothing but a Jew all of my life. As Jews, we're fond of saying that some people have a Jewish neshama – a Jewish soul.
I'm certain I've always had one.
Meri Blye Kramer is an award-winning author of two books and more than 100 articles. Enrolled through ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, she is currently studying to receive smicha (ordination) as a rabbi. Website: www.MeriBlyeKramer.com.